Ghana’s anti-colonial beverage gets rehabilitated

Thanks to entrepreneurs, local liquor akpeteshie that defied the British Empire receives a radical rebrand.

Ghana drink
Brothers Kofi and Raja Owusu-Ansah established The Republic bar where they've resurrected the historic local brew, akpeteshie [Roberto Valussi/Al Jazeera]

Accra, Ghana – In the space of 10 minutes, Alex has downed his third shot of akpeteshie, a local brew of sugar cane or palm wine.

An unemployed builder in his mid-40s, Alex is a regular at the modest Ensoyaneyer bar, nestled in a barely lit and unpaved alley of Accra, the Ghanaian capital.

Almost all the clientele on this Friday night are drinking akpeteshie, enticed by its irresistible combination of price and potency. A shot of akpeteshie costs the equivalent of $0.12 with an alcohol volume level of 45 percent as compared to beer, which costs $1 but contains less alcohol.

Yet, according to Alex, the virtues of akpeteshie do not end here.

“It does wonders to a lorry,” he told Al Jazeera. “Put it in your radiator in place of water and you can drive to Kumasi [Ghana’s second largest city] in three hours and a half, instead of four. It improves the motion.”

Beyond the Ensoyaneyer bar, the fevered debate surrounding akpeteshie is dividing Ghanaians across class lines.

For the working class it is a cheap drink, readily available in off-licence shops, street bars, and quaffed during ceremonies.

Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah was an avid enthusiast of akpeteshie [AP]
Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah was an avid enthusiast of akpeteshie [AP]

For the metropolitan elite, it is an unwholesome liquor, usually poorly distilled, with associated health risks, including blindness. Some rumours even speak of a type of akpeteshie fermented with rusty nails.

Rethinking a historical drink

Yet, often overlooked are the revolutionary origins of akpeteshie.

From the 1930s onwards, it became an icon of the pro-independence struggle against the British colonial authorities who had placed strict restrictions on local alcohol production.

Even Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president who led the country to independence in 1957, regularly drank and promoted the liquor.

Now, thanks to a group of entrepreneurs, akpeteshie is being given a radical rebrand.

Two years ago, two brothers Raja and Kofi Owusu-Ansah, aged 37 and 39, respectively, quit their jobs as a multimedia developer and a financial consultant and remodelled their office into a bar, which they dubbed The Republic.

The bar serves only akpeteshie and other local products, and has become one of the Accra’s most popular nightspots. With an intoxicating mix of world music concerts, DJ sets, and other live events it attracts a diverse blend of locals and expatriates from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We wanted to restore a piece of local culture,” Raja told Al Jazeera.

“We believe that this drink can help in blurring the lines between the upper and lower social classes, whose preferences and tastes are beginning to merge. It’s becoming cool for the former to indulge in what the latter usually does,” said Raja.

The rebranding of the drink required some innovative thinking.

At The Republic, akpeteshie is not just served as a shot but as a base for their flagship cocktails. By doing so, the brothers are hoping to replicate the wild success of cachaça in Brazil, also a distillate of sugar cane, which has morphed into a multibillion dollar industry as the base for world-renowned cocktails such as the caipirinha.

Emboldened by its success, the Owusu-Ansahs are now in talks with international investors about a $3m plan to produce an initial batch of 500,000 litres of akpeteshie in the first year.

If successful, they will become one of the largest distillers in the country.

That would also represent a much-needed boost to Ghana’s economy.

In March 2014, the Ghanaian government signed up for a $918m aid programme with the IMF to tackle its public deficit, nose-diving currency value, and runaway inflation.

A bartender pours out a measure of local spirit akpeteshie as he prepares a cocktail at The Republic in Accra [AP]
A bartender pours out a measure of local spirit akpeteshie as he prepares a cocktail at The Republic in Accra [AP]

The last few years have been a bitter disappointment for a country that discovered oil in 2007, and in 2011 boasted GDP growth of 15 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

On the streets of Accra, those days seem far away. But the history and renaissance of akpeteshie can be used to draw inspiration. It is not the first time the country has sought the help of the beverage during an economic crisis.

Illegal roots

In the 1930s, when the Great Depression reached Ghana’s shores, the country was known as the Gold Coast, administered as a British colony. The colonial authorities had banned local distillation of alcohol and increased liquor duties in part to curb drinking, but also to favour businesses run by white colonisers.

Drinking became too expensive and Ghanaians began to distil akpeteshie at home, giving this local brew the name that in the local language means “in hiding”.

Illicit distillation of alcohol mushroomed across the country. Many elders still recall how the colonial regime reacted to this trend by prosecuting the akpeteshie patrons, and inflicting heavy jail sentences upon them.

“Akpeteshie was very popular and my family used to do some small trade with it,” Sylvanus Apetorgbor, 77, from the southeastern fishing village of Atorkor, told Al Jazeera. 

“In the street, my father and my aunt would hide it under their clothes. They sold it mostly to fishermen who wanted something strong to start working,” he recalled.

“But one day in 1953, the colonial police smelled the booze in our house and found lots of it. They arrested them and kept them in jail for a month,” Apetorgbor said. 

But with strong patronage from President Nkrumah, akpeteshie became a symbol against colonialism. It was legalised in 1962, five years after independence.

Adverse effects

While it seemed the troubles for this favoured local booze were over, more problems emerged.

Emmanuel Akyeampong, professor of history at Harvard University and author of Drink, Power and Cultural Change, told Al Jazeera that Ghana’s new politicians grew uncomfortable with the idea of supporting a drink associated with social unrest and rebellion.  

Nkrumah’s government went from being a party of the common people that celebrated popular culture in the pre-independence era, to a party of order and social hierarchy in post-independence,” Akyeampong said.

Akpeteshie was stigmatised as a social malignancy, responsible for the moral and physical decline of poor people.

The situation worsened after a military coup ousted Nkrumah in 1966. Subsequent military and civilian regimes also demonstrated little support.

Saving Ghana’s troubled economy

“Especially in the 1970s, the governments were clearly biased against akpeteshie. They looked at it as a dodgy business, and this made it difficult to get a loan from a bank or to raise capital for large scale productions,” said Kofi Adom Gyimah, president of the Ghana Distillers Cooperative Union, the organisation established under Nkrumah to oversee the production of akpeteshie.

Yet, despite the stigmatisation throughout Ghana’s tumultuous history, akpeteshie is crawling back into prominence thanks to establishments such as The Republic that is changing social attitudes about the drink.

It seems the drink that survived eradication efforts by the British Empire and successive independent Ghanaian governments is more potent than just any other alcoholic beverage.

Source: Al Jazeera